Early Birds Get the Worm: Planning for College Success

With spring’s arrival the gardeners come out of hibernation, the birds return, the leaves unfold…and the college acceptance letters arrive.  As students across Minnesota discover where they’ll be going this fall, it is a great time to begin planning for the transition to college.

The first year of college can be challenging.  Not only do new students have intense academic pressure to cope with, but they are adjusting to a new location, new people, and separation from family.  Adapting to these changes is difficult for most people, but for a person with a mental illness, it can be even more complicated.  On top of everything else, they have to arrange for academic accommodations, continued treatment, and sufficient emotional support.  For students facing college with the added challenge of a mental illness, planning ahead can save a lot of stress down the road.

Many students with mental illnesses aren’t aware they have the right under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to request accommodations from public and non-religiously affiliated private colleges and universities.  An accommodation is an adjustment in how things are done that allows a student with a disability equal access to academic programs.  Each college may have it’s own standard for what is considered reasonable.  Generally, an accommodation can’t change the nature of the program or give select students an unfair advantage.

To find out if an accommodation would be useful to you, take a moment to think about your experience as a student so far.  What have you struggled with? What types of support helped? Did the support come from outside resources (family, friends, therapist) or from within the school (teachers, students, tutors)?  What helped you be successful?

There are many types of accommodations commonly requested by students.  Some find it helpful to record lectures, others request extra time for exams or a modified course schedule.  Some accommodations are personal, and can be made independent of the college (taking evening courses, adjusting your medication regime, getting a private tutor).

Before you request an accommodation, take a moment to consider your need for privacy.  What information are you comfortable sharing with professors, administrators, or your fellow students? Be aware your college may require you provide medical documentation before they provide an accommodation.  The disability support services office at your college should be able to assist you in making an accommodations request.

In some cases, you may need to leave college for an extended period of time for your mental health.  Take time to review the medical leave policy at your college.  If you take medical leave, they should allow you to return to college without a penalty or disciplinary actions.

It’s important to take a look at your insurance coverage before you attend college.  Will you be covered by your parent’s plan? Will your plan cover out-of-state providers?  Can you get prescriptions filled at the pharmacies in your new town?  If you will not be covered by health insurance, does your college offer free or low-cost mental health services to students?  If not, will you qualify for any state health insurance plans?

Whether you are covered or not, emotional support can be extremely valuable during transitions.  Before you go, check in with your friends.  What’s the best way to stay in touch?  Even one email a week can make a difference.

A little advanced planning can make a big life change a lot less stressful.  If you need help planning your transition, contact an advocate from MHAM at 612-331-6840.  Advocates are available Monday-Friday, 9-4:30.

You can find more information about accommodations and attending college with a disability at: Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights (PACER) , and the Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD).